When we overeat, we tend to use food in fairly typical ways.
One of these ways is using food for comfort – eating for stress relief, to self soothe, and as a source of softness, care and tenderness.
In my classes, I call this using food ‘as a mother.’
When food is a ‘mother,’ we’re using it as a relational substitute.
Food is not just food, but a mothering presence – a source of nurturing and comfort, a source of empathy and attunement (a way to feel ‘felt,’ seen and understood), and a source of stress relief.
Overdoing and using food for a ‘treat’
One of the patterns that tends to go hand in hand with this tendency is overdoing.
There may be areas in your life where you feel like you’re too hard on yourself – where you feel like you’re pushing yourself too hard or asking yourself to do too much. This internal pressure can feel oppressive and painful.
One of the ways you may cope with this stress is to treat yourself with food. For example, people will often share with me that food is their one or primary source of comfort or pleasure.
In truth, most of us use ‘things’ to relax to some degree or another – whether it’s with a dessert, a glass of wine, or a favorite TV show. Of course!
But when this pattern becomes excessive or compulsive, it creates a lot of pain and frustration.
Why setting boundaries can feel so confusing
This can bring you to a challenging place: where you want to set some boundaries or structures around comfort or stress eating, and yet you also want to do so in a way that doesn’t feel overbearing or punishing.
This can be especially tricky if you have relational trauma, and eating is a primary way you feel loved.
When food is a substitute mother – a warm, attuned loving presence – setting any kind of limit or boundary with food can feel like abandonment or neglect, a removal of this motherly love.
Many, many people have told me how food is the primary or only place where they feel deeply loved – and that removing this source of love feels like a giant emptiness, hole or void.
Likewise, so many have shared with me that setting any limit with food feels like punishing themselves. Cognitively they know the limits are helpful. But emotionally, it’s a different experience.
Alongside these strong feelings that come up around limits, there’s also another part of us that wants structure and limits, for limits and structures are a powerful and primary way we feel protected, nourished, and cared for.
Caring for the feelings that arise
What this can create is a double bind, or a push-pull – where you may have a desire to grow or make changes, or to set some boundaries with food, but you also feel afraid.
This mix of feelings is very understandable, and makes so much sense. And it can feel like these feelings are ‘getting in the way’ of your healing.
It can make us want to ‘remove’ or ‘get over’ these feelings so we can heal. I know I had a lot of drive to ‘fix’ myself and my painful feelings that kept me so caught in food – which often left me feeling like I was steamrolling over really tender places in my heart. Ouch!
In truth, our tender feelings aren’t in the way. They aren’t something we need to ‘get over’ to get to our ‘real life.’ They’re something precious arising, asking us to pause, and to offer care.
From a heart perspective, they’re openings and opportunities.
Here are a few things that can help:
Combine softness with strength: Both forms of nurturing are necessary to have a healthy relationship with food.
You need the warm, nurturing, yin, empathetic caring that helps you feel cared for and safe when you’re experiencing pain, overwhelm, or discomfort.
And you need the solid, strong, steady yang of boundaries, limits, and structures. This yang form of nurturing helps you feel protected and softens the anxiety about the ‘free for all’ that you can feel around food.
Get help for trauma: If very strong feelings arise when you try to create limits with food, or if you recognize that you have trauma, I highly encourage you to get support. Working with a therapist or a support group can make all the difference in healing and unwinding the pain underneath overeating.
Healing this trauma can help soften the very understandable resistance, alarm, and fear that can arise when you try to set limits or boundaries with food.
Take the next step of growth. If you feel the desire to integrate greater power, structure, or boundaries in your relationship with food, you may be entering a new stage of growth.
The yin qualities of nurturing, compassion, mercy, and gentleness, grace will still be a part of your journey.
And you may be feeling inspired to nourish, support, and embody the yang qualities of love – the forms of love that arise as boundaries, no, fierce protection, sovereignty, and power.
While this place may feel a bit new, or uncertain, this is a great place to be! For something is yearning to be born in you, and in your relationship with food.
Why it’s important to face your relationship with power
Facing your relationship with power helps you integrate the compassionate mindfulness that brings kindness to overeating with the grounded sovereignty of self leadership, facing limits, and implementing loving discipline with food.
It’s how we move into a middle way with food without veering so much into the extremes of excessive permissiveness or excessive rigidity.
It’s a powerful combination!
Hi Karly, Thank you for this post. I am so looking forward to learning about finding the middle way, I’m rather confused about limits and all that you outline here and it can be a daunting. So the thought of exploring my relationship with power gives me hope.
I have signed up on the waiting list a couple of days ago, however have not had the confirmation email come through. Just wondering whether the sign up post got through. Thank you. Warm regards from Susanna
Thank you for your comment. First, I wanted to let you know that you are signed up for the waiting list. (For others who were unsure whether or not they were signed up – we’ve now got an email confirmation that confirms when you sign up for the list. That should clear up the confusion.)
As for your feelings on power – they make so much sense. Power can be such a confusing topic, and it can be hard to know what form of nurturing is needed – softness or firmness? So feeling curious about exploring your relationship with power is a great place to start!
Thank you that I’m on the list and for your reassurance. From Susanna ????
Thanks so very much for your post – I swing between the excessive permissiveness and excessive rigidity! And either way I’m triggered!
I’ve never encountered the middle way as you’ve described it, and I feel so much hope that there IS a way forward that can be loving and compassionate, and that love has boundaries…I’m doing this work in therapy and with people I work with, and what you’ve shared here is confirmation that love heals in ways I would never have been able to conceptualise…you’ve done that for me!
Hi Petra, yes, it makes sense that both extremes can feel triggering and bring up so many feelings. Whew!
And I think that the heart yearns for a middle way that has lots of nourishment and compassion, and the boundaries that help us feel protected and cared for. I’m really glad this speaks to you – thank you for writing and sharing your experience. It sounds like you’re doing beautiful work, both in your own life, and in service to others.